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October 9, 2008


GSPH lands preparedness grant from CDC

The Graduate School of Public Health is among seven recipients sharing a total of $10.9 million in fiscal year 2008 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response (COTPER).

The awards will fund preparedness and emergency response research centers (PERRCs), established to investigate the structure, capabilities and performance of public health systems for preparedness and emergency response activities.  

The research priority for Pitt’s PERRC will be to create and maintain sustainable preparedness and response systems and to generate criteria and metrics to measure their effectiveness and efficiency.

Other PERRCs were funded at Emory, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Washington.

The research center awards are for a five-year project period that ends September 29, 2013. 


NSF funds STEM portal project

School of Information Sciences professor Peter Brusilovsky recently was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for his work on Ensemble, which will add a computing pathway to the existing set of NSF STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Digital Libraries (NSDL). Ensemble creates a distributed portal providing access to the broad range of existing educational resources while preserving the collections and their associated curation processes. Ensemble encourages contribution, use, reuse, review and evaluation of educational materials.

This system will ensure that the NSDL pathways provide a more complete coverage of STEM areas. The computing pathway supports the full range of computing education communities, provides a base for the development of programs blending computing with other STEM areas, and produces digital library innovations that are propagated to other NSDL pathways. Since computing communities continue to evolve rapidly, the computing pathway greatly aids computing educators in those areas.

Brusilovsky is principal investigator for the three-year project, which is a collaborative effort with Villanova, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Drexel, Portland State University and Texas A&M.


DOE funds materials research

Jörg Wiezorek, professor in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, was awarded $450,000 over three years from the Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Science for his project, “Electron Density Determination, Bonding and Properties of Tetragonal Ferromagnetic Intermetallics.” The research will examine relationships between the electronic structure and intrinsic properties of the tetragonal ferromagnetic intermetallics FePd and FePt.

Extending the experimental and theoretical tools from this study to other chemically ordered intermetallics and transition metal-based solid-solution alloys could have relevance for advanced metals-based technologies. Applications could include energy production and distribution, hydrogen production and storage, advanced catalysts, shape-memory devices, superconductors and permanent magnets.


Pesticide indirectly kills tadpoles

The latest findings of a Pitt-based project to determine the environmental impact of routine pesticide use suggests that malathion — the most popular insecticide in the United States — can decimate tadpole populations by altering their food chain, according to research published in the Oct. 1 edition of Ecological Applications (

Amounts of malathion too small to kill developing leopard frog tadpoles directly instead sparked a biological chain of events that deprived them of their primary food source, preventing nearly half from maturing. 

The results build on a nine-year effort by study author Rick Relyea, professor of biological sciences, to investigate possible links between pesticides and the global decline in amphibians, which are considered to be environmental indicators because of their sensitivity to pollutants.

In 2005 Relyea published research in Ecological Applications suggesting that the popular weed-killer Roundup is “extremely lethal” to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment.

For his current research, Relyea and the study’s co-author, Pitt alumnus Nicole Diecks, housed wood frog and leopard frog tadpoles in 300-gallon outdoor tanks. They exposed the simulated ponds to no malathion, moderate concentrations in a single dose, or low concentrations in weekly doses that mirror the levels tadpoles experience in nature.

Malathion, commonly used to control crop pests and mosquitoes that carry malaria and West Nile virus, has been detected in the wetlands where frogs and other amphibians live.

The malathion levels in the simulated ponds were too low to directly kill the amphibians, but wiped out the zooplankton that eat algae that float in the water. With few zooplankton remaining, the floating algae grew rapidly, preventing sunlight from reaching the bottom-dwelling algae that tadpoles eat. This chain of events occurred over a period of several weeks.

The wood frog tadpoles, which mature quickly, largely were unaffected but leopard frog tadpoles, which require more time to develop into frogs, experienced slower growth.

Ultimately, 43 percent of the leopard frog tadpoles did not mature as a result of the repeated application of malathion at very low concentrations.

Relyea reported that the multiple low doses were a greater detriment than the single dose, which had a concentration 25 times higher than the multiple applications combined.

While the zooplankton was wiped out, it could recover from the single dose, but not from the repeated doses.

The research results should apply to several other commonly used insecticides that are highly lethal to zooplankton, including carbaryl, diazinon, endosulfan, esfenvalerate and pyridaben, Relyea said.

The effects of insecticides and other pesticides on amphibians are not widely known because current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules do not require amphibian testing. The EPA also relies on single-species tests to assess a pesticide’s risk and does not account for potential indirect repercussions.

“The indirect impacts on the amphibians observed in this study could not be observed in traditional, single-species tests,” Relyea said. “These results demonstrate that we need to take a much broader view of the consequences pesticides might have in our world.”


River project funding renewed

The Heinz Endowments has awarded $200,000 to the Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC). The grant will help support one of CHEC’s flagship programs, the Allegheny River Stewardship Project. The community-based environmental health project explores water contamination in the Allegheny River. 

The funding will allow CHEC to expand the geographical scope of the Allegheny River Stewardship Project into other areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and to map water pollution concentrations to better understand health risks from environmental contamination.

Founded in 2004 with initial funding by the Heinz Endowments, CHEC conducts research on the relationship between the ecosystem and human health and serves as a resource for data, educational materials and general information on conservation and healthy and sustainable living. 

Other CHEC initiatives include identifying environmental risk factors for high preterm delivery rates, low birth-weight rates and high asthma rates in the Braddock-Rankin area of Pittsburgh; working with Pittsburgh Public Schools to improve the health and nutrition of students, and conducting training with physicians on environmental health issues.

CHEC director Conrad D. Volz, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said: “One of the things we strive to do within the center is to help individuals and communities identify the most important environmental problems they face and empower them to develop their own action plans for healthy living.”

Other CHEC faculty members involved in the project include Robbie Ali and Ravi Sharma of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. Charles Christian, CHEC manager, also is participating in the project.

For more information on the center, visit


Virus a cause of skin cancer

Pitt scientists are uncovering more evidence that a virus they recently discovered is the cause of Merkel cell carcinoma, an aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer.

The findings, recently published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, put to rest the possibility that Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) infects tumors that already have formed. 

Experiments in human tumors reveal that the cancer develops when MCV integrates into host cell DNA and produces viral proteins that promote cancer formation. Tumors occur when a mutation removes part of a viral protein needed for the virus to reproduce and infect other healthy cells, explained senior investigator Patrick Moore, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the School of Medicine and director of the Molecular Virology Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. The virus then can spread only as the cancer cells themselves multiply. 

Moore said, “MCV infects normal cells before they turn into cancer cells. The virus could not have infected a tumor afterwards because it can no longer replicate. It looks very much like MCV is the culprit that causes the disease.”

The researchers propose two possible reasons that these mutations develop: If viral replication continues, the immune system could recognize the intruder to eliminate diseased cells, or the viral replication itself will lead to the death of the cancer cells. Both of these possibilities provide promising leads to find better ways to kill Merkel cell cancer cells without harming healthy tissues.

“This research shows evolution within tumors on a molecular level,” said Moore. “You can see the specific molecular steps.” The team’s current work could account for known risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma such as UV exposure and ionizing radiation, which damage DNA and can lead to the viral mutations.

In a paper published in Science in January, Moore and his wife, Yuan Chang, who co-directs their lab, reported their identification of the virus and that it could be found in 80 percent of Merkel cell tumors. They said that although up to 16 percent of the population carries MCV, very few will develop cancer.

There is no treatment for MCV infection right now, but identifying the agent and understanding how it triggers disease could lead to targeted interventions, Moore said.

Pitt co-authors of the study are Masahiro Shuda, Huichen Feng, Hyun Jin Kwun and Ole Gjoerup, all of the Molecular Virology Program.


Music history project funded

The Center for American Music of the University Library System (ULS) has been awarded a grant of $39,826 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The 2008 national leadership grant will fund a planning conference scheduled for May 2009 at Pitt to develop strategies for creating an electronic directory for resources of American music history.

Music professor and Center for American Music director Deane Root will direct the project, which is a partnership between the center and the Society for American Music.

The granters identified Pitt’s project as “one that will have an impact on library and information services and serve as a model to libraries across the nation.” The two-day conference will bring together specialists in metadata, information technology and union cataloging, with preliminary work being done by experts through solicited papers.

Rush Miller, Hillman University Librarian and ULS director, said: “With this grant, we will be able to design a tool that will allow all of our citizens to quickly identify and access the archival papers, music scores, sound recordings, photographs, books and other resources from America’s musical history. These materials are otherwise difficult to find and use because they are scattered throughout collections all over the world.”


Stem cell source found

Stem cell researchers at Children’s Hospital have identified a source of adult stem cells on the walls of blood vessels that have the unlimited potential to differentiate into tissues such as bone, cartilage and muscle.

The scientists, led by Bruno Peault, a scientist at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and deputy director of the hospital’s Stem Cell Research Center, identified cells known as pericytes that have broad developmental potential.

Peault said, “This finding marks the first direct evidence of the source of multipotent adult stem cells known as mesenchymal stem cells. We believe pericytes represent one of the most promising sources of multipotent stem cells that scientists have been searching for in the quest to make regenerative medicine possible.

“The encouraging aspect of this source is that blood vessels are the one structure that all tissues in the human body have in common. These cells can be extracted easily and painlessly from convenient sources such as fat tissue, dental pulp, umbilical cord and placental tissue, then grown in culture to large numbers and, possibly, re-injected into the patient to heal a broken bone, a failing joint or an injured muscle,” he said.

Results of the study were published in the September issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.


PTS in ICU families studied

Family members may experience post-traumatic stress as many as six months after a loved one’s stay in an intensive care unit, according to a study by researchers at the School of Medicine and University of California-San Francisco.

The study, published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that symptoms of anxiety and depression in family members of ICU patients diminished over time, but high rates of post-traumatic stress and complicated grief remained. 

Cindy L. Bryce, professor of medicine and health policy and management at the School of Medicine, said: “Our findings suggest that family members of patients in the intensive care unit are at risk for serious psychological disorders that may require treatment.

“Unfortunately, it may be difficult to identify these family members while their loved one is in the hospital because the symptoms that we can observe and measure early — anxiety and depression — do not seem to be associated with the longer term outcomes like post-traumatic stress disorder and complicated grief. This tells us that screening family members after hospitalization is crucial.”

The study of 50 family members of ICU patients measured their levels of anxiety and depression in the ICU and at one- and six-month follow-ups. The study also measured symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and complicated grief during the six-month follow-up interview. 

Forty-two percent of family members showed symptoms of anxiety in the ICU. This percentage dropped to 15 percent at the six-month follow-up. Likewise, 16 percent of family members displayed depression in the ICU; that dropped to 6 percent at six months.

At the six-month follow-up, 35 percent of all family members had post-traumatic stress while 46 percent of family members of patients who died had complicated grief. Surprisingly, post-traumatic stress was not more common in bereaved than non-bereaved family members.  

Other Pitt co-authors were Robert Arnold and Derek Angus of the School of Medicine.



The University Times Research Notes column aims to inform readers about funding awarded to Pitt researchers and to report briefly on findings arising from University research. We welcome submissions from all areas of the University, not only health sciences areas.

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